With all the debate surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) mission creep we often forget that the federal government has been practicing censorship by hijacking domains of websites. We’re told that SOPA will be OK because the government will only target copyright offenders but the truth is they’ve already used their authority to censor non-infringing websites:
Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine’s offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company’s printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine’s lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that’s a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.
But, in a story that’s been in the making for over a year, and which we’re exposing to the public for the first time now, this is exactly the scenario that has played out over the past year — with the only difference being that, rather than “a printing press” and a “magazine,” the story involved “a domain” and a “blog.”
Okay, now some details. First, remember Dajaz1.com? It was one of the sites seized over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend back in 2010 — a little over a year ago. Those seizures struck us as particularly interesting, because among the sites seized were a bunch of hip hop blogs, including a few that were highly ranked on Vibe’s list of the top hip hop blogs.
In fact, as the details came out, it became clear that ICE and the Justice Department were in way over their heads. ICE’s “investigation” was done by a technically inept recent college grad, who didn’t even seem to understand the basics of the technology. But it didn’t stop him from going to a judge and asking for a site to be completely censored with no due process.
The story goes into more detail but I’m sure you get the point. ICE has been shutting down domains based on “evidence” collected by completely unqualified individuals. Instead of laughing and tossing out requests for domain seizures judges have simply been saying, “Well I’m an agent of the state and you’re an agent of the state so you must be right. Sieze the domain!” This kind of ineptitude isn’t an exception but is the rule when it comes to government enforcement of almost anything.
Knowing this people still want to grant the government more power. What SOPA will do is allow this kind of incompetence to spread even further. I also guarantee you that many websites that are critical of the federal government will find themselves on the list of copyright offenders, by accident of course.